Monday, October 15, 2007

Beware of dogs - Part 4

Beware. Dogs are on the loose. Some of them are running rampantly through your city and some of them are sitting there inside the fences and behind the pulpits, looking nice and friendly, but are ready to pounce upon you once they get a chance.

They can't let you have too much freedom because that will only lead to a licentious, sinful lifestyle. If they give you just an inch, they know you'll take a mile. They see that you might perhaps be thinking differently about something they preach, but if you don't line up to their way of thinking you are on God's list and you'd better just be quiet and get with the program. Things have always been done a certain way, and if you're not going to abide by the rules, ordinances, programs, steps, codes, principles and traditions, you'd better watch out 'cause God's gonna get ya!

They greet you with a nice wide smile, a wink, a hug, a handshake. But once the doors are closed, they make a meal out of you.

But all too often it's much more subtle than all this. They may not openly devour you, but they'll put you under just enough law and on just enough of a leash (heh... dogs putting you on a leash) so as to leave you questioning your standard of performance for God for the church. They'll give you all the steps to take to make yourself right with God or keep yourself right with God, and if you succeed they'll pile just a little more on you. And if you fail, they'll have you rededicate your sorry self back to God so you can start all over and try again, only harder this time. The joy of the Lord will come when you get your act together, and only when you get your act together!

All of this is nothing new. The early church dealt with it. Just imagine having been a Jew who had come to trust in Jesus. You'd formerly been a keeper of the Law, but one day it finally dawned on you that all the Law could do was to show you how sinful you are, and when Paul's "good news" doctrine hit you, you finally died to the Law so that you could be married to Another... to Jesus Christ. You'd heard that in Christ, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision meant anything... but only faith working through love. You were finally FREE! You were finally dead to sin and alive in Jesus Christ!

But then some people came along who weren't so fond of all this freedom in the gospel. Sure, it was great to trust in Jesus, but you still had to keep the Law and you still had to maintain a certain code of ethics in order to remain in the fellowship of believers. And so they came secretly into your church to spy on you and find out just exactly you were up to. They couldn't let this freedom thing go too far. They had to make sure that you got back into the shackles, into the traditions, into the Laws.

Yep, Paul ran into these people. And he sounded the alarm loud and clear to beware of these people and to not let them hinder the freedom that the church had found in Christ. He was rather blunt when he wrote to the Philppian church:

"Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation!" (Phil 3:2)

They knew what he meant. I'm amazed today, even when we look at the context of what Paul is talking about, at how these words are taken to mean something so different! "Evil workers" is taken to mean "sinners" or people who are coming in to try to get you to sin. And "the mutilation..." What does that mean? People don't get it so they ignore it! (The NIV words it as "those mutilators of the flesh," and I think the NLT words it in such a way as to help the modern person understand it: "those mutilators who say you must be circumcised to be saved.")

That was a huge debate back in the day (whether or not one had to be circumcised in order to be saved). In the church today, we're pretty much over that. But we're pretty big on adding many other things in place of circumcision! If you don't submit to the rules, traditions, tithing (10% of your gross income), etc, and if you don't submit to the (so-called) authority of "the leadership," then you're no longer under God's protection. I'm sure we could all add stuff to the laundry list of things we've heard in church that sure might have sounded good at the time, but ended up putting us into bondage and taking away our freedom in Christ!

Paul uses some pretty strong language against legalists. In regards to circumcision, he goes so far as to say that he wishes that "those who trouble you would even cut themselves off!" (Gal 5:12). He's not talking about cutting off a hand if it causes them to sin.

Again, today we don't deal with circumcision so much as we deal with other rules, regulations, traditions, etc, that others would put us under. Some of the people may even really think they're helping us to be free by having us submit to these things. But in the end, it's only bondage. The only freedom is truly found in knowing and being known by the Lord Jesus Christ, and in walking in the freedom for which He set us free!

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Gal 5:1-6)

In the above passage, we can substitute the words "circumcision" and uncircumcision" with all the various things that people try to put us under in order to supposedly keep us right with God and on the good side of the church.

Surely we all want to live fruitful, productive Christian lives! But the bondage of religion and tradition, even if it looks good, won't get us there! Only the life of Christ, living in us and through us by faith, will achieve victory. We will be victorious and free, at the same time, when we cut off the shackles of religion and legalism and walk in the freedom for which Christ has set us free.

I could go on and on here, but this has already gotten long! I'm sure I'll pick up on it more as time goes on, and I welcome discussion on it. One last passage:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing-if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? (Gal 3:1-5)

Beware of dogs!


  1. Joel,

    Excellent series of posts. I am very fortunate and thankful that God brought me to a church that teaches and preaches grace. We have had some wonderful classes where we went through different books like Grace Walk, The Rest of the Gospel, The Christian Secret to a Happy Life, Humility, and others. Our pastor participated in these and everyone learned a lot. I have been part of legalistic money-hungry churches in the past and nothing can suck the life out of you faster.


  2. Gary,

    I think many, many Christian have had the life sucked out of them through the subtle and not-so-subtle legalistic teachings that deny them the freedom that Christ paid the price for us to live in. Like you, I was under some of that for a while and it was a bumpy roller coaster ride, with a few highs and many lows.

    And also like you, I'm thankful that God sent people my way to share the good news with me, and to help me to become established and rooted in grace.

    I'm also thankful for the people I've met since that time, such as those in the blogosphere like yourself and others from who I've received continuing encouragement in the pure gospel!

  3. Honestly, I don't think I have ever known one single Christian that wasn't somehow in some way legalistic, nor have I ever heard of a church that was grace filled - until now. Sad, but true, I was one of them.......

  4. Oh I too am grateful to meet so many folks living for Pure Grace here on the wonderful world wide web!!!

  5. Joel--

    Great series. Galatians 5:6 has become a favorite verse of mine. What I do can never define who I am, but knowing, and receiving by faith, my identity in Christ, WILL determine what I do.

    As long as I am trying to prove my righteousness by my 'doing', the focus remains on me. The more I come to see that the issues of God's love and acceptance of me are settled in Christ, the freer I become to truly love God and others. Which are the first and second greatest commandments, according to Jesus.

    Kathy J

  6. Lydia,

    Yep I agree that all of us have dealt with various amounts of our own legalism. As we grow in grace, hopefully that becomes less and less in our lives, but we truly do need to leave room for one another to breathe and to learn and to grow in God's timing.

    I'm thankful that Gary has found a grace-based church to be a part of. In the late 90's, I was part of a former Word of Faith church that had changed and had become a very grace-based church. Man, I really began to become established in grace during that time. That group of people ended up dispersing. God led us all in various directions, and it's been great to be able to grow in grace and share it with others, but I truly do miss spending time with that core group of people!

  7. Kathy J,

    I absolutely love that passage from Galatians. And I love what you are saying here... What I do can never determine who I am, but who I am will determine what I do! I think this has a lot to do with Jesus' words about abiding. He said if we abide in Him, and His words in us, we will bear fruit. Seems like the church gets so focused on "doing" what the words say that we miss the Person who performs it all in and through us. And His words to us aren't just found in the Bible. I believe His word is found in all the things He shows us as we abide in Him.

  8. What an amazing post! Thanks.

  9. Thanks, Jul. Sometimes the alarm just needs to be rung loud and clear!